Narrating the Future

This article has appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Asian Social Democracy Journal

An Examination of Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

One morning, while I was on my way to work, I saw a large billboard that was apparently set up by a group of fundamentalist Christians. Written in bright, bold letters, the tarpaulin warned commuters of the approaching Apocalypse on May 21, 2011 and called on the public to turn back to God before it is too late.

Amused by the boldness of its assertion, I dismissed the statement as utter nonsense and went on my way; though I had the gnawing feeling that the people behind the said banner had complete faith in the truthfulness of their message.

This minor incident, to my mind, reflects the various ideas that we have on how the world will exactly end. Evangelicals, for instance, believe that we are already living in the End of Days; while scientists, on the other hand, maintain that the Earth will be around for another five (5) billion years, until the Sun finally dies out as a frightening red dwarf.

Such apparent lack of consensus, however, is hardly surprising, since our vision of the future is greatly influenced by our own frameworks and belief systems. This was, in fact, pointed out by American academic Neil Postman in his last major work Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.

First released in 1999, the book begins with the controversial proposition that the “future is an illusion;” not because time does not exist, but because the “future (that) we see is only—(and) can only be—a projection of the past” (p. 5). Hence, the future (for Postman) is made and not divined, since it would have to be painstakingly built by the current generation using all the moral and intellectual resources that it has at its disposal.

This, however, places a terrible responsibility on us who are living in the present, for we are now compelled to search for “useful and humane ideas (from our past) with which to fill the future” (p. 13).

It is probably this sense of obligation that has prompted Postman to condemn his fellow intellectuals who have “fallen under the devilish spell of…postmodernism” (p. 8). Utilizing a set of arguments that sometimes borders on the ad hominem, the author accuses the purveyors of this social theory as “people in the thrall of a serious depression” and equates them with “alien- and devil-believers” (p. 8) for allegedly offering ridiculous ideas.

But this begs the question: How are we to understand the term postmodernism that the author so vehemently repudiates?

In a chapter laconically entitled “Language”, Postman describes postmodernism as an intellectual movement that “calls into question some of the more significant ‘modern’ assumptions about the world and how we codify it”—ideas which (according to the writer) have been inherited from the Enlightenment (p. 69). This, Postman argues, has a particular significance for language since it is now “under deep suspicion and is even thought to be delusional” since it is totally incapable of mapping out reality.

A similar idea was also proposed by fellow academic Pauline Rosenau who typified postmodernism for its “open-endedness and lack of specific definition” (1992; p. 11), whose aim is “not to formulate an alternative set of assumptions but to register the impossibility of establishing any such underpinning for knowledge” (Ibid.; p. 6).

Her statements, however, imply that postmodernism actually has repercussions that extend beyond the realm of linguistics; which is why Fredric Jameson uses it as “a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order” called late capitalism (1998; p. 3).

But for Postman, the implications of postmodernism is even more sinister, since its dominance in American intellectual circles actually indicate the loss of purpose and breakdown of narrative in the West. By narrative, the author refers to “stories that are sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and future of a people; stories that construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and, in doing all this, provide a sense of continuity and purpose” (Postman; 2000; p. 101).

However, it is precisely this sense of purpose that is being assailed by postmodernist thought. In his book The Postmodern Condition for instance, French intellectual Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the postmodern “as incredulity toward metanarratives.” This is then accompanied by the narrative function “losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal,” since it is now “being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements…(and) conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind” (1984; p. xxiv).

As an American writer “who fancies himself a heir of the Enlightenment” (p. 7) Postman’s critique is quite understandable. But for post-colonial societies like the Philippines, his criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt, since postmodernism has actually assisted intellectuals from the South to unmask the subjective character of certain Western episteme.

Edward Said, in fact, quickly comes to mind who (by acknowledging his debt to Michel Foucault) was able to conclude that, “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be studied without their…configurations of power, also being studied” (1979; p. 5). Hence, for Said, “neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; (since) each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other,” as well as the power relations that they engender (Ibid.; p. xvii).

Yet, for all his unyielding criticism, Postman does have a point: that a far better future can only be secured if we try to redeem some of the most sublime and edifying ideas from the eighteenth century. Of course, in Postman’s reckoning, the eighteenth century roughly corresponds to the Age of the Enlightenment—the period wherein “we developed our ideas about inductive science, about religious and political freedom, about popular education, about rational commerce, and about the nation-state,” as well as the notion of progress and our modern concept of happiness (pp. 17-18).

He even gave a fairly comprehensive definition of the Enlightenment, describing it as “a philosophical movement of the eighteenth century focusing on the criticism of previously accepted doctrines and institutions from the point of view of rationalism” (p. 3). This is quite compatible with Kant’s own version of the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, ” by “hav(ing) the courage to use your own reason” (p. 3).

Incidentally, this particular assertion by Neil Postman has great significance for activists in the Philippines, since our own Revolution of 1896  (and the Republic that it subsequently created) were largely animated by the Enlightenment ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite. This is fairly noticeable in the writings of Emilio Jacinto who reminded his fellow revolutionists that, “all men are equal; (since) the origin of all is the same” (de los Santos; 2009; p. 174), and that “liberty is the attribute of man from the moment he is born” (Ibid.; P. 173).

He also tried to establish the proper relationship between the state and its citizens, saying that, “the object of all government is the people, and the security and welfare of the people must be the aim of all laws and acts” (ibid.; p, 177). He further develops this idea by articulating his own version of the social contract, attesting that the power of the ruler was not given to him by nature, and that as a man he is on the same level as the rest. Hence, all power, to be reasonable and genuine, must be exercised for the benefit of the people from which it emanated. (Ibid.; pp. 177-178; underscoring  supplied)

Another compatriot Apolinario Mabini also worked in the same milieu, and tried to envision the kind of government that will be established in the Philippines once the Revolution has been decisively won. Writing in the town of Rosales while hiding from his American pursuers, Mabini asserted that the future government should be a “political trinity” (1931; p. 56) wherein state power will be divided among the executive, the legislative and the judiciary within a parliamentary system. He then tried to establish the appropriate relationship among these three government branches by allocating the functions that should be given to each one of them:

Society should have a soul—authority. This authority should have a sense of reason that guides and directs—the legislative power. A will that acts and implements—the executive power. A conscience that judges and punishes the bad—the  judicial power. Those powers should be independent in the sense that none of them should infringe on the authority of the other. However, the latter two should submit to the former, as will and conscience submit to reason. The executive and judicial cannot separate themselves from the laws passed by the legislative, but the latter does not have any other judge except public opinion, or the people themselves. (Ibid.; p. 58)

These, then, are the legacy of 1896 which we, by extension, have inherited from the Enlightenment and the men and women who made the American and French Revolutions possible. How we will use this inheritance to shape our future is entirely our own.

One thing, however, is quite certain: that the future can only be built through toil and painstaking sacrifice. For as Jose Rizal suggests in the closing chapter of his patriotic novel Noli Me Tangere, we must first fall in the night before we can claim the promise of the new dawn.


De los Santos, Epifanio. 2009. The Revolutionists. National Historical Institute: Manila.

Jameson, Fredric. 1998. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. Verso London and New York.

Kant, Immanuel. 1963. On History.  Lewis White Beck, Robert Anchor and Emil Fackenheim (trans.). Macmillan Publishing Company: New York. 

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (trans.). University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Mabini, Apolinario. 1931. The Philippine Revolution (With Other Documents of the Period): Volume II. National Historical Institute: Manila.

Postman, Neil. 2000. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. Vintage Books: New York.

Rizal, Jose. 2006. Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). Harold Augenbraum (trans.). Penguin Books: New York.

Rosenau, Pauline. 1992. Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads and Intrusions. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. Vintage Books: New York.